Move over Asia. Latino cuisine is reasserting itself as the national cuisine of the moment. And this is good for Charlotte, since the Latino community — the largest ethnic minority, comprising 13 percent of the population — offers a depth of culinary diversity, including scores of ex-pat-owned restaurants.
Anyone who says Latino cuisine is new to the area hasn't lived here very long. Those who have will remember the excellent Spanish cuisine of Tio Montero on East Boulevard; the Yucatan-styled chicken with achiote at Los Dos Hermanos Mexican restaurant on Independence; and the stunning Siboney Cuban Restaurant in south Charlotte, which used yerbabuena, a variety of mint, in their mojitos more than a decade ago.
During the aughts, Central American food emporiums have become as common as a summer afternoon rainfall in Charlotte. Slapping pupusas — the venerable Salvadorian art of transforming a lump of maize flour dough — is a technique found in many Latino restaurants across town. This is true for restaurants owned by native Salvadorans even when the dishes on the menu are predominately Mexican, or more precisely, what many Americans consider to be Mexican.
In 2008, restaurateur Dilcia Molina, a Salvadorian ex-pat, opened the family-friendly Fonda Las Cazuelas on North Tryon Street, in the spot formerly occupied by Carlos' Italian Restaurant & Pizza. Fonda is the Spanish word for inn or tavern; cazuelas are ceramic cooking vessels. The emphasis here is on home cooking, or as her sign says: con todo el sazon de mi tierra (with all the seasonings of my land). Restaurants that last are forged out of pride and passion. You will find both here.
The interior of this outbuilding has been transformed into a colorful eatery with an airy outer room, bordered by sunny wall colors and a tiled floor, and a darker interior bar space. Televisions offer sports or soap operas, while Latin American music floods the rooms. A mariachi band performs during Friday dinner service and Sunday brunch.
The lengthy menu offers myriad opportunities to try something new. Molina has brilliantly provided enough variety that the potential for new discovery still exists for her repeat clientele. Plus, she provides two menus: a shorter one with photographs — helpful for those unfamiliar with the dishes — and the full menu with descriptions in both English and Spanish. The staff is attentive and seems to lack the huckstering found in many corporate Latino-styled restaurants.
Fonda's tacos are worthy of true affection. While you won't find trendy pork bell, curry crema or anything here with chipotle remoulade, these tacos are fine renditions, small enough and cheap enough ($1.85 each) that you can order an assortment — chicken, beef, pork, bacon, poblano — for a spectrum of flavor. The best of the lot are the tiny, marinated shrimp flecked with cilantro and onions.
Another bright spot on the menu are the gorditas huastecas, a trio of thick corn tortillas filled with shredded beef, pork rinds, slow-cooked pork, onions and sprinkled with farmers cheese. And no matter your position on stuffed corn patties, don't think about skipping the pupusas. Have it as an appetizer. The accompanying chopped curtido, a sprightly cabbage slaw, makes this dish.
Another standout is the flour tortilla quesadilla with mushroom and cactus. You will want to finish every bite. Not so with the Cuban sandwich, which is not a traditional Cuban. Rather, this is a meat-lover's extravaganza: shredded beef, a fried chicken cutlet, ham, sausage, a fried egg, plus refried beans and slices of avocado, jalapeño, tomato and onions. If that sounds messy, that's because it is.
Fonda's menu covers much more ground: burritos, enchiladas, fajitas, seafood dishes, ceviche and more than a dozen specialty dishes. On weekends, barbecue lamb, sometimes goat and soups — menudo, caldo de res and tortilla — are offered. The bar list offers a range of cocktails, including margaritas and a Zombie.
Molina's straightforward approach, great-tasting Latino comfort food and her attention to detail, such as offering salsas in miniature molcajetes, is infinitely more satisfying than many Latino restaurants that offer far less and cost much more.